Wildlife: Garden Bees in Derbyshire

Honey bee and grape hyacinth

Honey bee and grape hyacinth - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson gets out and about with his camera as bees return to our gardens

A swarm of honey bees

A swarm of honey bees - Credit: Archant

Spring is never complete until we have heard the first buzz of one or other of the different species of our garden bees. For many years I didn’t really give the bees that work so industriously in my garden much thought.

I was vaguely aware that there were the big furry bumble bees and then ‘the rest’, which I naively thought were ordinary honey bees. Over the years though I have become increasingly interested in the wider variety of insects that share their lives with us.

My interest was fired by three separate experiences. As I enter my garden there is an old wall and in spring a colony of small bees is always buzzing around it. The main problem is that as the day cools they simply sit and wait on the path and steps so that it’s almost impossible to avoid stepping on them. If I do inadvertently tread on one I am filled with guilt, so much so that I have even tried to educate my local postman and neighbours to be aware of them – with varying levels of success. The second experience was while I was weeding a flower bed. I noticed a number of minute volcano-like craters in the soil, like mini pyramids. My curiosity fired, I found a stool and sat for hours watching them until a brown bee emerged and flew off. Incredible. The third occasion was when I was working at a farm in Unstone running a bird of prey workshop. The farmer came to warn us that one of his bee hives had swarmed and they were potentially quite aggressive bees. I couldn’t resist going to have a look. The sight was awesome, thousands of the insects hanging from the lower limbs of a tree with bees constantly flying to and fro. That was a spectacular sight indeed and the constant low but incessant drone from the colony felt really threatening.

Honey bees at a hive

Honey bees at a hive - Credit: Archant

The result of these experiences was that I started to take a real interest in the bees in my garden and those of my friends dotted across Derbyshire. I became fascinated by the number of different species and the varying lifestyles that each had chosen.

We are all aware of the common honey bee. Once wild it is now cultivated in hives to provide us with honey and to pollinate many of our crops and fruit trees. Its life cycle is well known, with the huge colony having a queen who lays eggs that are tended by worker bees who collect nectar which they convert by eating it and regurgitating it into honey. When they do this they convert the sugar type and reduce the water content so that the honey is fungi and bacteria resistant for years, great for long term storage. The taste of honey is determined by the type of nectar the bees collect. When I work on the moors in August photographing grouse in the purple heather I can literally smell honey and it always reminds me of the connection between the heather and my favourite toast spread!

It is, however, the other bee types that most of us are not familiar with. We can divide bees into two groups really, social bees and solitary bees. Honey and bumble bees are social, living in colonies. Bumble bee colonies are small and started by the queen on her own as she leaves hibernation in the spring. She seeks a hole, often under a shed or in the lawn or a garden wall, and starts her own colony by laying a few eggs and collecting both nectar and pollen to feed the grubs when they hatch. When they do, they are all female workers who now help the queen to grow the colony. It never gets large and only has tens of bees, not hundreds. In the late summer some eggs hatch as new queens and males leave the nest and mate. The new queen now hibernates as the old dies.

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The other group of bees are solitary bees and two of the more common are mining and masonry bees. Both have similar life cycles. The mini volcanoes in your lawn or flower beds are made by tawny mining bees. The males emerge first in spring and wait at the hibernation sites for the females who emerge a few days later. They mate and the males leave and die. The female bee then digs tunnels in the soil, hence the name mining bees. At the end of each she lays a single egg, stocks it with nectar and pollen and then seals it up. She lays the female eggs first and the male eggs later and nearer the earth’s surface so they emerge first next year. The grubs hatch and develop in their own personal larder.

Masonry bees have a similar life cycle but they look for existing holes in walls, sticks or even snail shells. These are the bees that seem to commit mass suicide by sitting out on our garden path below the wall with their colony.

Bees are essential insects in human society, not only for the way they enrich our lives but also, to use a very modern term, for the service they provide us with in terms of pollination.

One of the most remarkable aspects of natural history is the great variety of life forms around us and the bees that share our gardens are no exception. A few minutes in spring watching them and listening to that delightful buzz is always rewarding – it is also a great way to avoid some of the more tedious tasks that having a flower bed often involves!

Bee Friendly Garden Plants for spring

Aubretia, bluebell, flowering currant, grape hyacinth, primrose, pulmonaria, sweet violet, winter aconite, wood anemone. Remember to plant flowers in large clusters so that bees don’t have far to fly between meals.




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